Strengthening military facilities in northern Australia, especially air bases, is the most urgent demand in the Defence Strategic Review.
Nothing else in the document is given such a sense of emergency. After previous failures to act, "it is now imperative that our network of northern bases is urgently and comprehensively remediated," says the review.
"The priority for this network is the series of critical air bases," which must have "immediate and comprehensive work," it says.
Defence Minister Richard Marles promptly said the government was committing $3.8 billion to northern bases, including $2 billion for the airfields. But it looks like most of that money is just re-announcement, with perhaps only $200 million of new funding directed to making our bases tougher.
Marles hints at more to come, however.
The review did not spell out the reasons for urgency. But any defence analyst will explain that an air force can be suddenly incapacitated by missile and air attacks wrecking runways and parked aircraft.
Naval and army units can also be debilitated by loss of bases, but generally not so quickly and decisively.
The Royal Australian Air Force has six air bases in the continent's northwest, north and northeast, covering the directions from which we would expect a major military threat.
Most of the locations are not very pleasant, however, and the armed services are always struggling to persuade people not to quit. So the air force permanently keeps aircraft at only one them, RAAF Tindal, at Katherine, NT. Normally, most of the air force is in south-eastern Australia.
In a crisis, the squadrons would move north.
Although the northern air bases are intended to be our front line, they generally lack features needed for riding out missile and aircraft strikes then quickly springing back into action.
The review listed improvements that were urgently needed, starting with hardening and dispersal.
Hardening an air base means pouring a lot of thick concrete, including building tough structures for protecting aircraft, personnel and equipment. It also includes redundancy (duplication of facilities so the base can operate while damaged) and a strong capacity for repair (crews, construction equipment and materials ready to fix cratered surfaces).
"Dispersal" means providing widely spaced locations for keeping aircraft, equipment and supplies, so not all can be destroyed by just a few warheads.
The review further demanded work on runway and taxiway capacity, probably because it wanted each base to be able to support more and larger aircraft. Extra concrete also contributes to redundancy: the more surface that's available before an attack, the more likely that sufficient undamaged lengths of it are still useable for operations afterwards.
Also required in the review was improvement to fuel storage and supply - no doubt meaning that the bases needed reliable means of receiving aviation kerosene and more underground space for holding it. Three of the bases have neither a pipeline nor a rail line.
Better ammunition storage was among other things that the review required.
The air bases had to be regarded as an integrated system, it added, meaning it was dissatisfied with their current ability to support each other and work together.
Tindal is already being upgraded under a project for which the Coalition allocated $1.6 billion and the US government further funding. The work will enlarge the base's single runway, taxiways, parking and fuel and ammunition capacity but not provide additional, redundant surfaces nor tough aircraft shelters.
The review also mentioned the airfield on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, 2100 kilometres out in the Indian Ocean, but there has been no official suggestion that the isolated outpost will be developed as a serious base.
Work has been due to begin late this year to make it fit for operations by Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime aircraft, which would be able to patrol the Indian Ocean better if they could land and refuel there. The runway will be strengthened and lengthened.
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The airfield at Christmas Island, 1500 kilometres from the mainland, can already accept aircraft of the size of Poseidons.
Under another review recommendation, the Commonwealth will talk to local and state governments and the mineral resources industry about military use of civil infrastructure in northern Australia.
On this point, the review was evidently referring mainly to airfields, to which military aircraft could disperse in wartime, giving an enemy more problems in hitting them.
Conceivably, civil airfields could stand in for military bases that had been knocked out, though each would have only a small capacity for sustaining operations. Mobile support teams would be needed.
Since the review pointed out that some civil facilities were being considered for decommissioning, quick action will be needed to ensure they remain available.
The review did not spell out specific improvements needed for navy and army facilities. But Marles's $3.8 billion included $1 billion to be spent mainly on Northern Territory training areas and on barracks in Darwin and Townsville. There was also $600 million for naval installations, including the bases at Darwin and Cairns and the submarine-communications station at Exmouth.
Analyst John Coyne of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute doubts that much of the money is new. Moreover, the size of the existing budget for Tindal suggests that even $2 billion of new funding would not go far in hardening it and the RAAF's other northern bases.
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The government is not as definite in its support for urgent upgrades of northern bases as it is for most other recommendations in the review. It did not say it "agreed" with the base recommendation, as it did for most of the others, but, rather, "agreed in principle".
Asked whether any of the $3.8 billion was being re-announced, Marles's office pointed to the minister's statements on the funding.
Since he described $200 million for accelerating projects as "additional," at least that part should be new, but much of the rest could be money that's been previously announced for Tindal, the Indian Ocean runway and the naval and army facilities.
Marles did, however, suggest more money was coming, telling reporters in Darwin that the funding was "just the start of an increased focus that you will see on our northern bases."
There would be "a far greater focus on thinking, on planning for investment in our northern bases," he said.
- Bradley Perrett has worked for 20 years as a defence and aerospace journalist.